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1997-12-08 15:46:19


Alaska Pipeline: A Gigantic Frozen Candlestick?



If embedded chips fail, the Alaskan oil pipeline could turn into a very long candlestick without a wick . . . and with no way to get it back into an oil pipeline until spring.

I need not dwell on the implications.

* * * * * * * *

PRUDHOE BAY, Ala. -- It is January 1, 2000. Far to the south in the Lower 48, information systems managers are shaking off the effects of the New Year's Eve party of the century, and checking in to verify that their data-processing systems all survived the change of calendar. But here on the North Slope, there is a somewhat more pressing problem. Somewhere down the pipeline, a pumping station has shut down and refuses to answer. Minute by minute, a cylinder of crude oil reaching halfway across the tundra is getting colder, turning to sludge. Once frozen, it will not thaw until spring.

The scenario, according to an increasing array of embedded-systems experts, is possible. Year 2000 syndrome--the collection of software errors that comes from using only two digits instead of four to represent the calendar year-have so far been exclusively the headache of the data-processing community. But in recent months operators of deeply embedded computing systems--the controllers that run pumping stations, hydroelectric dams and chemical plants--have begun to wonder how immune they really are.


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